12 Places to Score Free 5-Gallon Buckets

I don’t know about you, but it seems that about half the things I own, by number, are 5-gallon buckets. I use them for absolutely everything. Gardening, landscaping, painting, food storage, improvised stools, working out, stashing tools – all kinds of stuff.

pinto beans and 5 gallon buckets ready to be sealed
pinto beans and 5 gallon buckets ready to be sealed

They are just indefinably useful! But climbing costs are a major concern when it comes to bucket proliferation, and I like making my preparedness dollars go as long as they can. To that end, I’ve figured out where I can nab lots of 5-gallon buckets for free.

If you want to buff up your collection, keep reading and I’ll tell you about 12 places that are worth checking out if you’d like some freebies yourself.

Will I Get Food Grade Buckets from These Places?

Yes, or at least sometimes. Many of the places I will recommend to you below will actually give away food-grade 5-gallon buckets.

That’s because they are handling food or food ingredients for sale, and most retailers, vendors, and institutions do not reuse them, recycle them, or send them back to warehouses or wholesalers.

As a rule of thumb, if the place you are getting your 5-gallon bucket from used it to store food, you’ve got food-grade buckets for sure.

But there’s an easier and surer way to check: look at the underside or side of the bucket for markings saying it is “food grade” or “food safe” or for embossing that tells you what kind of material it’s made from.

If you see HDPE, you are good to go. HDPE is high-density polyethylene and that means the bucket is food-grade with a few caveats.

You’ve got to sterilize the bucket properly before using it for that purpose, of course, and you can never, ever use any bucket that held harmful chemicals or other contaminants that might leach into the plastic for food storage.

What About Lids?

Most, though not all, of the freebie buckets you’ll be able to snag will come with lids, but depending on the manufacturer, it might have a slightly different rim configuration or style compared to the hardware store buckets you’re used to buying.

That means if you plan on adding a specialty aftermarket lid, you probably want to get the buckets first and then go shopping for the lid.

Gasketed or “gamma” lids, for instance, are perennially popular for food storage and it would be a shame if they didn’t fit on the buckets you are able to get.

Just keep that in mind. Now, on to the list…

The Best Places to Score Free 5-Gal. Buckets

Sandwich Shops

Sandwich shops might seem like a strange place to go looking for 5-gallon buckets, but that’s only because you don’t know the secret. The secret is that every sandwich shop (or at least most of them) gets their pickles in these same giant buckets.

And since food safety laws state that restaurants and suppliers generally cannot reuse these buckets for their intended purpose in a restaurant or food-prep setting, that means that they’ll typically get thrown out with the garbage.

Thrown out unless you come along, strike up a conversation, and tell them that you’ll be more than happy to take these buckets off of their hands.

Keep in mind that some sandwich shops will send these buckets back to suppliers to be professionally sanitized and then reused, but this is pretty rare these days.

Something else to keep in mind is that pickle buckets smell like, well, pickles and any gear you put inside will also smell like pickles unless you work hard to get the smell out entirely. Easier said than done!

Bakeries

Bakeries are another great place to score some free 5-gallon buckets. Sugar, salt, and sometimes even specialty flour will come in food-grade 5-gallon buckets and compared to the pickle buckets at the sandwich shops above, they are far, far easier to clean up and repurpose.

Local bakeries are an especially good option for scoring some freebies, so if you make it a point to always get your weekly croissants, donuts, or bagels from a hometown bakery make sure you take the time to talk to them when they aren’t at peak hours.

Will usually be more than happy to set them aside for you for a prearranged pickup time.

Fast Food Joints

Other food purveyors that go through lots of 5-gallon buckets are fast food joints, particularly any franchise that deals with pre-cut fries. Many such places will go through several of these buckets a week at the very least, and most will go through dozens if they stay busy.

Curiously, some franchises like McDonald’s have explicit rules in place so that managers know not to give these buckets away and simply throw them out with the trash. I guess they don’t want the liability no matter how remote the chance is.

But, most other fast food places will be more than happy to hand over the buckets if you know how to ask nicely. If they seem resistant, try to build rapport with a particular shift manager and they’ll probably let you get away with them.

Club Stores

Membership club stores like Costco and Sam’s Club have huge supplies of 5-gallon buckets not just on the shelves but also in the back at the bakery and food prep departments.

As expected, these buckets are also food-grade which is a bonus, though what was stored in them is anybody’s guess.

In my experience, I’ve had good luck getting free buckets from these giant institutions, but I’ve also noticed a trend: success tends to come down to the individual department- or store manager.

Some seem almost suspicious that you’d even be asking for such a thing, whereas others are more than happy to see waste materials be repurposed instead of thrown away.

In any case, there is no harm in asking and the worst they can do is tell you no.

Home Improvement Stores

You already know you can get painters’ buckets at the big home improvement stores, and they sell them by the boatload.

But what you might not know is that there are free ones to be had if you don’t mind scrounging around and finding out which department has them in for what purpose.

They use them as trash cans, from mixing paint, have them hanging around as returned paint that can’t be resold, and countless other examples.

Getting your free 5-gallon buckets here is a lot like opening up a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get, but I know that you can get them if you ask around.

three paint buckets
three paint buckets

Paint Stores

One of the most obvious and, somewhat tragically, commonly overlooked sources for free 5-gallon buckets.

Paint stores sell gobs and gobs of paint as you might imagine, and they also get lots of buckets back. Whether it is returns, angry customers, defects, recalls and so forth there will be plenty that are bound to be thrown away just as soon as they have time to deal with them.

As an added bonus, there might be a few cases where you can get some free paint in the bargain! Different stores and chains have different policies, but being nice to the employees who work there and explaining what you are after will usually be fruitful.

Big Box Department Stores and Grocers

Although it isn’t the most productive place to check on our list, you shouldn’t rule it out, especially if you are combing your town to get as many buckets as possible.

Big box department and grocery stores like Walmart, Target, Meijer, Kroger, and others often have bakery sections and other departments where ingredients will be delivered in, of course, our buckets.

I’ve had consistently good luck at my local Meijer, specifically at their bakery department, but it’s worth asking wherever you go and shop normally. I wouldn’t necessarily make a special trip, though, especially if it’s out of your way.

Pool Supply Stores

Pool supply stores sell all kinds of chemicals in all kinds of quantities, and for larger pools, pond care and so forth 5-gallon buckets are the standard.

Very much like paint stores, if products are returned, defective, open, or damaged they won’t be able to sell them much of the time and they’ll be bound for the dumpster- right after they take care of the hazardous material disposal.

This can be a win for you and for them because if they let you have it they don’t have to deal with it anymore. You might even get some free chemicals for your own pool or water feature.

The big downside, naturally, is that many of these chemicals can be quite hazardous and reactive, which rules them out for storing food and might make them dodgy depending on what other sorts of things you plan on doing with the bucket.

Be careful, use your head, and read that safety data sheet!

Nurseries

Nurseries where plants are sold will dependably have a large supply of 5-gallon buckets for moving and caring for young plants and saplings. If they are getting damaged or a little too old, or if they already have a mountain of the things, they will probably be glad to let you take some.

And again, be cautious when repurposing: even if the bucket itself is made of HDPE or some other food-safe plastic don’t be too hasty to store food in it even when it is cleaned up.

Some chemicals can leach into the plastic only to seep out and contaminate what is stored in it later. Fertilizers can be particularly bad about that.

Landscapers

Your local landscaping companies may be worth calling if you’re trying to score some free buckets, and I can attest that my own landscaper was happy to offload some old, grungy, and battered buckets that were still perfectly serviceable for utility purposes.

After all, they will probably be using them for many of the same things that you’re planning on using them for!

Painters

And, last but not least, don’t rule out local painters and painting companies either! If there is anybody you can depend on to have “paint buckets,” it’s painters!

Their buckets are reusable, of course, but most painters that I’ve known don’t spend too much time cleaning them up when they can just buy new ones for so cheap. And it seems wasteful, but time is money especially when you’re painting.

If you don’t mind doing a little bit of cleaning and refurbishment, you can get plenty of perfectly usable buckets from them.

5-gallon buckets Pinterest image

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